Where Do Christmas Traditions Come From? Bestselling Author Reflects On the Meaning of the Season
DECEMBER 20, 2021
Welcome to our Parade.com essay series in partnership with Friends & Fiction, an online community hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry.
Once a month, you’ll get a new life lessons essay from one of the writers, as well as the chance to discuss the themes of it later that night on Facebook Live!
Today, Patti Callahan reflects on Christmas traditions and the importance of them.
It was Christmas Eve, 1991, and 12-year old Kristin Harmel (now one of the authors of Friends & Fiction) sat in the back seat of a Toyota Previa minivan with her 9-year-old sister and 6-year old brother. They held hot chocolate and candy canes, and their mom drove them around St. Petersburg, Florida to see all of the area’s best Christmas lights. Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman played from a cassette tape, and the three siblings snuggled in the back seat with the joy of Christmas between them. They repeated this tradition every single year.
Now, 30 years later, Kristin is a mom and she does something similar, except now she rides with her husband and young son on the monorail around Disney’s Magic Kingdom with hot cocoa and gingerbread in hand and gazes with awe at the resort lights and decorations.
Just like Kristin, we know that traditions ground us and bring us closer to our loved ones. As we repeat rituals that are comforting and honoring, we are more present to each other and to the holiday we celebrate.
When you hear the phrase “Christmas tradition,” it’s possible that one of the first things you think about is a Christmas tree. In the dark of winter, evergreens have always symbolized hope for brighter days, as they maintain their color all year. We can travel all the way back to the Early Roman period to see that people decorated their homes with evergreen boughs during winter in a feast called Saturnalia. In Judith Flanders’s book, Christmas: A Biography, she writes that although there are many precursors and myths, Germany is credited with the first Christmas tree in 1419, when a guild decorated an outdoor tree with apples, flour-paste, wafers, tinsel and gingerbread. And the first indoor decorated tree is recorded in Germany in 1605.
As with the best of traditions, that of Christmas trees grew from year to year and from era to era, all around the world. We might start with an evergreen bough in Rome and end with a fully decorated tinsel-tree in America.
After the decorated tree, our minds often fill with the image of presents under that tree. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are credited with this image pervading our Christmas traditions. In the 1848 Illustrated London News, there is an engraving of the queen and prince with their children gathered around a tree with presents scattered about its base, the first such image seen by the public. Now, hundreds of years later, it is common that gifts under the tree are a large part of our Christmas rituals.
When I was a child, part of our family ritual was to attend the candlelight Christmas Eve service and head straight home to bake chocolate chip cookies and leave them on a plate for Santa. Then it was off to bed to listen for reindeer hooves on the roof. The next morning, magically, presents sat under the tree. The thrill of waking up on Christmas morning never truly leaves us and I found myself repeating these traditions, even as an adult. I would stay up late putting together bikes or playhouses so that when my three children awoke, the tree was lit, stockings hung fat and full, and presents spilled out from beneath the tree. My kids are grown now, but they don’t want to see those wrapped goodies until Christmas morning.
But how did the Christmas presents get there? That is where the Santa story arrives. The “real” Santa Claus can be traced back hundreds of years to a monk named St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who was born near modern-day Turkey in the year 280. He was a man who was said to give generously to others, a true gift-giver. He’s been called by many names: Father Christmas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle or Santa. The Christmas tradition of this saint bringing gifts most likely began when groups of Dutch families in the late 1700s honored the anniversary of the real St. Nicholas’s death on December 6th. And like every other tradition it shifted and flourished from there.
Here at Friends & Fiction, we all have our family traditions that celebrate the season. Mary Kay Andrews and her husband began a family ritual when they married, and it continues to this day: They attend Midnight Mass and return home to sit around the tree while everyone in the family chooses one gift to open. When our managing director, Meg Walker’s children were toddlers, they began a modern tradition, too: watching the Christmas movie Elf while they decorated the tree. Meg’s kids are in college now and still they do the same thing. Kristy Woodson Harvey tells us: “One of the newer traditions in our family—one started by my mom around the time I was born, actually—is to have Christmas crackers, which my family calls party poppers, at every meal. For those unfamiliar, Christmas crackers are brightly wrapped and, as you pull on each end, with a loud pop they open and out pops a prize inside, a joke, and a crown. In our family, Christmas crackers aren’t opened until dessert—a rule strictly enforced!—and everyone is required to wear his or her crown, even if you’re a teenager and very, very cool.”
Sometimes it is food that is at the center of our family customs. Ron Block, head of our Writers’ Block podcast tells us that “As far back as I can remember, one of the highlights of Christmas Day has been fudge. Each year, all the cousins would arrive at our grandparents‘ house and make a beeline to Grandma Violet’s sideboard. We would stare at the pieces of fudge until we were allowed to choose only one to have before dinner, knowing we would devour the rest later.”
Our tech guru, Shaun Hettinger of Neon Moon Studio, Meg Walker and Mary Kay Andrews also recall family Christmas memories that revolve around food. Shaun says, “The sweetest Christmas tradition was bestowed upon our family from the late Weber sisters, Mabel and Sarah. Mabel wore a lot of hats in our house—she started as a cleaner and turned into a nanny, but in our hearts she was really our third grandmother. Every summer they’d begin baking large batches of the Christmas cookies for which they’d become known. Receiving a tin of their cookies with your name hand-written on it was about the best Christmas gift in the world. Last year my sisters re-discovered her handwritten recipes and got to pass on that delicious Christmas tradition to the new generation of kiddos in our family.” Meg Walker makes the same Holiday Morning French Toast every Christmas morning. And when Mary Kay Andrews returns from Midnight Mass the house smells like baking ham, which was her late mother’s tradition.
Traditions often gift us with a sense of comfort and a spirit of fellowship with something larger than ourselves, whether that is a family, a community or a spiritual tradition. They are acts that are repeated over and over with those we love, ground us, and draw us closer to the holiness of the holidays. They offer stability and trust in an unstable and changing world, and they comfort us when the world seems senseless. Ultimately, they bring us together in familiarity and love.
As my daughter, Meagan Rock says, “When we bring ritual back into our lives, we bring meaning back into our lives.” We also bring in gratitude, purpose, and an unshakable sense of belonging. This holiday season, we here at Friends & Fiction hope your traditions, no matter where they started, bring you closer to each other and to the spirit of the holiday.
Friends & Fiction is an online community, weekly live web show, and podcast founded and hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry, who have written more than 70 novels between them and are published in more than 30 languages. Catch them and their incredible author guests live every Wednesday at 7pm ET on the Friends & Fiction Facebook group page or their YouTube Channel. Follow them on Instagram and, for weekly updates, subscribe to their newsletter.
About the Author
Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and Globe and Mail bestselling novelist of 16 novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah out now and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19th, 2021. A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the co-founder and co-host of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and on her website www.patticallahanhenry.com.